Nevada - ultimate dump site? `Hot' US atomic waste slated for mountain

From a distance, Yucca Mountain blends anonymously into a landscape of ocher mesas and elephant-hide badlands. Yet this mountain is far from being just another volcanic rumple in the arid Southwest. Yucca is where the federal government would like to mount one of the country's greatest - and most unwanted - technological challenges: building the first permanent burial site for high-level radioactive waste. The prospect is stirring emotions both vitriolic and varied in the land that is to host it.

``It don't bother me any,'' says Rick Casey, tatooed manager of the Union 76 service station here, who can see the mountain from where he pumps gas.

``They are taking the most dangerous project that mankind has undertaken and forcing it on Nevada in the face of nearly unanimous opposition,'' says Bob Fulkerson in a citizens-group office 300 miles away in Reno.

``I'm not yelling, `Let's get it here,''' says Elaine Parker in tiny Beatty. ``But I'm not saying we don't want it,'' she adds. ``Something has to be done about the waste.''

The battle over Yucca Mountain embodies all the complexities of the modern West. It is part sagebrush rebellion, part states rights struggle, part small-town pragmatism.

Top state officials and the entire Nevada congressional delegation, in varying degrees, oppose the proposed project, as do many people in the state's larger cities.

But some business interests and many folk in the small towns near where the dump is to be located say, ``Bring it on, provided it's safe.''

Over the next seven years the US Department of Energy (DOE) will spend up to $2 billion to decide if it is safe. It has already conducted 2,000 studies of the area. After 1995, if the site gets a clean bill of geology, construction will begin on the repository that would hold atomic waste from commercial and bomb-producing reactors, which is now accumulating at temporary storage sites.

When the dump opened, around 2003, steel-lined casks of radioactive refuse would be entombed in tunnels 1,000 feet below the Nevada desert. The site would remain open for 25 to 30 years and later be sealed to isolate the waste for 10,000 years.

The latest round of activity - and acrimony - surrounding Yucca was triggered by Congress's decision in December to make it the only study site for the nation's first high-level nuclear dump. Previously, three locations were to be evaluated, including one in Washington state and one in Texas.

Now Nevada will be the host site unless Yucca proves unsuitable.

The choice of this ridge of bleakness and black brush not far from California's Death Valley has always had its adherents. It is dry and isolated, sits on federal land astride the nation's nuclear testing site, and is made up of tuff - volcanic rock that can absorb radioactive particles.

Yet state officials are not enamored of these arguments. They have long resented Uncle Sam's saddling them with facilities no one wants.

``Our image is that we are a worthless region to be exploited by those needing to dispose of the nation's refuse,'' Democratic Gov. Richard Bryan, an early and vocal critic who is trumpeting the issue in his current bid for the Senate, said in an interview last fall.

Opponents also believe the area is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic activity. A study by one of DOE's own scientists theorizes that water 1,000 feet beneath the burial vault could be forced up through fractures during an earthquake, imperiling the steel canisters. Another report suggests that the area may have been volcanically active more recently than previously thought.

``We are extremely concerned about the suitability of the site,'' says Steve Frishman of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office.

Still, DOE hasn't seen anything yet to shake its confidence in the site.

``By no means do we know if the site is going to meet the regulations,'' says Carl Gertz, DOE's project manager. ``But from what we've seen so far, we see nothing to indicate it won't.''

Less arcane is the dispute over transportation. Critics argue that the threat of an accident involving one of the 70,000 truckloads of nuclear waste that will come into Yucca over 30 years could imperil tourism - though others say the risks are greatly exaggerated.

``I'd rather drive alongside one of these casks than a gasoline truck any day of the week,'' says Bob Dickinson, a Las Vegas businessman.

In March, Nevada filed a states rights-oriented lawsuit to try to block the dump - one of six it has pending against the federal government.

Citizen groups are mobilizing opposition among people who live along the transportation corridors.

Yet not every Nevadan is piqued over the idea - particularly in places like Beatty, a one-traffic-light town near Yucca.

Some 1,500 permanent jobs would be created by the project, and millions of dollars would flow into state and county coffers in tax revenue each year.

``People are pretty comfortable with nuclear here,'' says Bob Revert, a Nye County commissioner who has lived with bombs going off at the test site since his youth.

The thickset manager of the local Texaco station also is resigned to the presence of nuclear waste dump: ``It don't make any difference to me.''

But Charles Traylor, a dishwasher who is having a cup of coffee at Elmer's Wagon Trail Drive-In, balks. ``I think we better invent another source of fuel,'' he says.

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